The African Union Remains Critical to the Continent

The United States will need to work more closely with the Union if it wants to help shape the future of Africa.

By + More
Chairwoman of the Commission of the African Union Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma smiles while listening to Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the talks in Moscow, Russia, April 29, 2013.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

It is difficult to know what to think of the African Union, just as it is hard to assess the performance of the United Nations. Both institutions sometimes seem particularly ineffective, much like our own Congress has become, but both also seem necessary given the lack of any real alternative. The African Union, partly through its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity celebrates its 50th anniversary on May 25. Most African heads of state will attend the celebrations at the Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia over the weekend and into the following week, and Secretary of State John Kerry will also address the body, as will heads of state from non-African countries.

President Obama was invited to attend, but sent Kerry instead. This has not set well with many African leaders, but the decision has been made and we move on. There will be many speeches, often self-congratulatory, and many ideas will be expressed on what the African Union should do in the years ahead. Like any group of 54, in this case of nations and heads of state, there will not be unanimity, though most will call for it at some level. Consensus among three people is challenging enough, and among 54 virtually impossible.

Some have said that Africa's one continental organization is like the United Nations, except even less effective. It was born out of a compromise between competing visions, as was the U.N., and made possible by the diplomatic skills of Halie Selassie in May 1963, and because of his intervention, the Organization of African Unity, and now the Africa Union is headquartered in Addis Ababa. (Ironically Halie Selassie himself was overthrown in a military coup and died, some say essentially murdered, in imprisonment.) It was in 2002 that the Organization was essentially dissolved and converted into the African Union. The former had been rife with conflict, and was an organization that perhaps necessarily and inevitably focused on reactions to injustices of the colonial past and was often reflective of the Cold War. Perhaps strangely to many, it was leaders such as Moammar Gadhafi who called for a new vision for Africa. Other leaders such as Thabo Mbeki helped define a more-forward thinking and arguably more realistic vision and the African Union emerged from the ashes of its predecessor. Gadhafi imagined himself the leader of African unity, but like Halie Selassie also met a violent but more public end before he could see the celebration of his (and others) vision.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

I am not so sure that the African Union is really less effective than the U.N. On some days I am more hopeful about the future of the African Union than I am of the United Nations as it is currently constituted. The African Union has generally been more responsive to crises on the continent, and it has suspended membership of those countries whose leaders have come to power through coups, particularly Madagascar, Guinea Bissau and others. The African Union has acted with authority in key situations, even when its authority is limited. It has no troops of its own, and its recommendations are more guidelines and not laws for other countries to follow. Its attempts to work through consensus, and therefore, progress in anything can be painfully, brutally slow, like watching a snail cross the sidewalk on a hot day. You wonder if the snail will make it to the other side, but usually don't stay around to watch the result. Still, it is a moral authority for a continent whose countries bristle at the idea of moral authority being imposed from outside of the continent and it has dared act on its convictions.

The African Union also seems seriously committed to economic reform, and is working on models for change in many areas. My own organization has seconded a person to the Union to help develop a model investment code for the continent, and I know they are working on other models in governance, transparency, regional cooperation in customs, infrastructure, legal frameworks and other programs essential to African development. The operative word, of course, is 'models.' These can only be recommendations for nations as ultimately heads of state seldom cede autonomy and power of their own nation-state. The African Union in essence, is a body of persuasion, not coercion, and persuasion for change often requires years not days.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Internally, it is also a bureaucracy of mixed cultures and ways of seeing and being in the world. Decision-making still flows down more than it does up. Inertia sets in at many levels, only to be broken by the management in place. At present, that top management is South Africa's foreign minister, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma, and Kenya's deputy chairman, Erastus Mwencha. They must manage a number of splits, perhaps the strongest being between the Francophone and Anglophone nations. With two Anglophones in the leadership they will be especially sensitive to the concerns of the Francophone nations as well. In reality there are any number of ways the African Union can and will hamstring itself. Dr. Dlamini-Zuma has been known for an anti-U.S. position, and perhaps that should be understood in the context of her political struggles in South Africa before Apartheid was ended. We should expect a more open leadership now as she has a very different responsibility than only from the perspective of a nation, but now of a whole continent, and she was elected to her chairmanship, and as such does represent the will of the nations of Africa.

Africa's development will depend on greater regionalization economically and politically, and that will depend on leadership of the African Union. Like change at the national level, change at regional and continental levels is and will be dependent on the quality of leadership to move ideas forward.

The African Union has voted in new leadership and it remains to be seen how effective that leadership will be over the next five years. However, what is clear is that the United States will need to work more closely with the Union if it wants to help shape the future of Africa and its relationship with America. We will also need to recognize that a more forceful Africa sees that real change must come from within, from Africans themselves. This will certainly be a theme under Chairman Dlamini-Zuma. We should hope for a stronger, not weaker African Union, and for that reason alone, we should actively reach out to work with the leadership of the African Union.

  • Robert Nolan: Questions on the U.S.-EU Trade Agreement With Karel De Gucht
  • Read Patrick Christy and Colin Grubbs: Obama Should Build Military Ties Between U.S. and India
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad